A Bomb Goes off in Hungary
Barry, John, American Theatre
IN MID-NOVEMBER, INTERNATIONALLY known Hungarian theatre and film director Janos Szasz woke up in Budapest to find his name and photograph posted on a wiki-style "Metapedia" list, on which more than 200 Hungarian public figures and artists are tagged as Jews, and occasionally as "homosexuals" or "Socialists." (Some are identified as "Romas," too.) Szasz's now-deceased father, a Holocaust survivor, was also on the list. So was Robert Alfoldi, the director of the Hungarian National Theatre.
Even as Szasz was discussing the online list by phone with American friends on Dec. 20 in Budapest, another ominous change was taking place in the nation's Parliament. Hungary's right-wing Fidesz government--which coasted to victory on a wave of resurgent nationalism in April--was in the process of passing a new media law which has been denounced by the International Journalists' Federation as "the strictest set of regulations in the Western world." Upon going into effect on Jan. 1, it authorized a government commission of five members to punish whatever they choose to define as "unbalanced" journalism in print and online media with crippling fines.
In a career that includes an ongoing relationship with Massachusetts's American Repertory Theater and a raft of European film awards, Szasz has determinedly maintained Hungary as a home base. He's also been pointedly apolitical. "I have always hated politics. I don't talk about it. My friends don't talk about it," says Szasz, in halting English on the phone from Budapest. Now, however, politics has forced itself into his family's world and, if necessary, he's prepared to leave. "It is hell here," he says. And then he wonders if it's the right metaphor. "Or you could say it's freezing, like a refrigerator. This isn't a country I want my six-year-old son to grow up in. People are saying it's 2011. How can this be happening in Europe? But it is happening."
And it's happening fast. In April 2010, the Fidesz party booted the Socialist party from power with an overwhelming 52.8-percent majority of the vote, winning 263 of the 386 seats in Parliament. More ominously, the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party surged to a 17-percent share of the vote and 47 seats in Parliament. Since then, in an uneasy alliance with Jobbik, Fidesz has moved to radically amend the constitution to consolidate its hold over Hungary's legal system and its media and to muffle its thriving artistic community.
As director of the Center for International Theater Development, Philip Arnoult has spent nearly two decades creating a partnership between U.S. and Hungarian theatres. "It's a dangerous cocktail," he warns, speaking of the combination of nationalism, economic discontent and an effective one-party system. "And Hungary's independent cultural life could be the collateral damage when this bomb goes off."
Initially, Hungary's own artistic community was circumspect in its response to the new political order. …